Pity today's parents. As if facing every decision for what it is — the possibility that the choice, if right, will be forgotten, but, if wrong, will be gist for years of therapy — weren't enough, parents must also decide what to do about giftedness. According to popular culture and advertising campaigns, parents should uncover their infant's talents and provide enough enrichment and training, starting immediately, so that each child's chances of adult success are not diminished by parental complacency.
Or so Alissa Quart's new book, "Hothouse Kids: The Dilemma of the Gifted Child" (Penguin Press, 272 pages, $24.95), tells us. This book provides a thought-provoking but ultimately flawed exploration into what Ms. Quart calls the Icarus effect, the psychic damage that results if children are forced into adult levels of achievement too early. Icarus, of course, flew too near the sun on wings his father crafted for him and plunged into the sea. The modern analogue is the musically talented, or intellectually gifted, or athletic child whose parents, sensing a good thing, force training on the child. Such children are often unable to translate their early successes into adult achievement; they may face long-term mental health issues, or they may simply feel that their lives as adults, no matter how successful, do not live up to their early promise. Exploring this phenomenon, Ms. Quart raises some interesting questions but never quite meshes her various inquiries into a satisfying whole.
For middle-class parents, parenting is all about enrichment, starting with "smart baby" DVDs and going on through toddler classes and intensive training for older children and adolescents.The underlying assumptions, Ms. Quart tells us, are that with "educational resources and familial support, gifted children will become gifted adults," along with the notion that if stimulation is good, then early enrichment and more activities throughout childhood are better. This canard is based on research showing that a lack of stimulation for infants can lead to developmental delays. But it's a logical fallacy to assume that if deprivation causes negative effects, then enriching products must produce positive effects, as Ms. Quart points out.
How this perception came to be so widespread deserves a book of its own. As Ms. Quart outlines it, one source was the research on brain development widely reported in the early 1990s, including the serious idea that brain growth during the ages of 0–3 is crucial. There followed the corollary, now known to be incorrect, that once the brain's pathways are laid down by age three it is too late to change the main outlines.Then there was "the Mozart effect," based on experiments, yet to be replicated, in which some researchers concluded that listening to Mozart had a positive impact on "very short-term spatial thinking" of college students. Somehow (and it would have been useful if Ms. Quart had examined how) this research, in Ms. Quart's word, "morphed" into a putative imperative that playing classical music to infants will improve the ability to reason.
As she examines the lives of older children and adolescents, it's the pathological extremes that truly interest Ms. Quart. Parents in different subcultures offer their children different routes to greatness, and a child's gift is clearly dependent on milieu. What drives "giftedness," Ms. Quart writes, is the parent's narcissism, or even the parent's interest in being the parent of a gifted child. According to Ms. Quart, gifted children often become a sort of insurance for economically anxious parents, a tool to keep parents in middle-class social strata.
Ms. Quart assumes that the number of pathological parents is increasing and that they are getting started earlier. She concludes that the unreported downside to the giftedness industry is a likelihood of very poor outcomes for "gifted"children: If a child is identified as gifted and doesn't live up to potential he or she can wind up feeling guilty and inadequate, or never develop the tools to lead a healthy adult life. Ms. Quart's over-general prescription is that we as a society back away from our search for giftedness and let kids enjoy pursuing their own interests and non-directed play. Allowed to maintain sufficient motivation, those truly ‘gifted' will develop at a rational pace.
Interesting as the issues are, this book is not the final discussion of them. Ms. Quart never defines "giftedness," or tells us whether everyone is innately potentially gifted, or only a few are; whether giftedness is something objective and measurable or purely a social construct. Ms. Quart generalizes about the pathology she sees from a small sample and assumes that her conclusions apply more widely than they perhaps do. While research on enrichment may be thin on the ground, research on child development and the (generally positive) impact of programs like Head Start is widely available and the book could have used more of it.
In the end, "Hothouse Kids" isn't so much an examination of a phenomenon as it is a coming-of-age book (Ms. Quart admits to having been a gifted child herself) in which Ms. Quart explores her own background and perceived shortcomings through the lens of other enrichment programs, and comes to an adult acceptance of who she is. By the end of the book readers are left without a resolution of the dilemma, or even a clear sense of whose dilemma it is: the parent's? Society's? The child's? Ms. Quart has maintained her motivation to investigate this area; a less personal focus might have produced a more useful result.
Ms. Bowie lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children.